The Casual Vacancy

The Casual VacancyThe Casual Vacancy by J.K. Rowling
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I read this book solely because I was curious what Rowling would do. I also promised when I started that I would not compare it to Harry Potter. I generally leave authors out of mind while reading and try to judge books on their own merit, but since literally the only reason I read this book was because of the author, it was a bit difficult to separate them.

It’s a solid 3.5. Since Goodreads doesn’t let you vote for .5s, I debated endlessly over whether to round up or round down. I finally decided to round up, partially because I simply love the way Rowling writes (I could nitpick some passive and convoluted sentence construction, but everything is so vibrantly described that I let it pass), and partly because I think she tried to do something clever, and even if it didn’t work out, I still kind of appreciated it because I like it when authors try to do interesting things.

The book is set in a fictional town which is probably fairly typical… it has good upscale areas and seedy poor areas, and a local political body that squabbles over what to do about everything. One of the councillors drops dead, and while half the town mourns in shock, the other half scrambles to nominate themselves to fill the seat and further their own agendas.

That’s it. That’s the book. The story follows the reactions and day to day doings of several key players in the town (and their teenage children…). It wasn’t un-interesting… and it’s beautifully described with brutal honesty, going through topics like drug abuse and child protective services, high school drama, prejudice, attempted murder, theft, self mutilation, abusive husbands, mental illness, hateful gossip, pedophilia, sex of both the consensual and nonconsensual varieties… if you can think of a horrible thing, it’s probably described in vivid detail in this book. (Hmm, there was no cannibalism though! So that’s something.)
There’s pretty much no other plot devices than “this is what this character is doing now”, which was my main complaint… there was nothing driving the story. but there was nothing “hooking” me to come back and find out what happens next.

It is 100% character driven, and one of my other complaints was that the first 25% of the book is spent introducing you to all of the characters. One after the other after the other until everyone blurred together in a giant amalgamated mass. I’m already breaking my rule and comparing it to Harry Potter – in HP, we had a ton of characters who were all fleshed out, but the reader was introduced to them gradually as Harry met them. That’s a decent means of exposition. The protagonist is just as clueless as the reader, so we learn together. In Casual Vacancy, everyone in the town knows everyone else and we’re dumped into the middle of it. I’m a fan of showing not telling, but a bit more orientation would have helped the book get rolling I think.

The second problem with the characters was that I hated all of them. Well… not hated I guess. I hated some of them (probably because I was supposed to), and didn’t give a shit about the rest (and I’m not sure if I was supposed to…). It wasn’t until the very end of the book that I realized this was probably on purpose, because the beginning of the book shows you the shallow petty sides of everyone, and it’s not until later that their more intimate secrets are revealed and you understand their history and motivations. I suspect you’re supposed to do an about-face on many of the characters later on and gain some sympathy for them THEN, which honestly I think is kind of a neat thing to attempt in this book. Taking abhorrent characters and turning them into everyone’s favourite is something George RR Martin manages to do in A Song of Ice and Fire, and it’s one of the things I was most impressed with. Unfortunately, with no sympathetic characters to latch on to early in the story, it falls a bit flat. The reader needs a reason to keep reading, and I really only kept reading because I wanted to give it a fair review…

Another thing that might be kind of clever, is that by introducing the characters with only their shallow petty sides visible, the reader is tempted to make shallow judgements of the characters. Which is exactly what the characters are doing to each other throughout the book. At the end, when the reader gets to see “behind the curtain” and see their motivations, it’s a revelation into how those types of judgements are flawed, and simultaneously a revelation into the flawed motivations of the town as a whole.
I’m probably reading too much into it, but the point still stands – the reader has to actually make it to the end before the story becomes anything other than shallow and unfocused.

And one final, sort of minor complaint. I mentioned how every sort of horrible thing is vividly described – The book is very sexually explicit. You can hardly turn 10 pages before tripping over a penis in this book. In MOST of the cases it makes sense, but in a number of them I felt like it was being sexually explicit simply to throw some shock factor in there. Here we go with the HP comparison again – I felt like it was artificially explicit simply because Rowling wanted to distance herself from the “children’s author” typecasting. It felt like she wrote a brutally explicit book simply to say “See? Look, this isn’t a children’s book, is it?” and she tried just a teeny bit too hard in places.

Once you make it to the end, the last 25% or so is a page turner and I enjoyed it very much. The whole “denouement” is full of action and you *finally* want to keep going to see what happens next. It’s just getting there that’s the issue.
And once you’re done… the ending might leave some readers a bit unsatisfied, too. I would suggest avoiding this book if you are prone to clinical depression.

View all my reviews

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About tagracat
I am not a professional, I don't get paid to review shit, I am just opinionated and I seem to have some sort of disorder that results in spewing my opinions onto the internet. I enjoy writing long-winded posts about things and sometimes I like to pretend people want to read them, so a blog seemed an appropriate place to stuff it. But mostly I just like writing about things.

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